The platform is changing

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Seth Godin calls it the WordPerfect Axiom, and he’s exactly right: When the platform changes, the leaders change.

WordPerfect had a virtual monopoly on word processing in big firms that used DOS. Then Windows arrived and the folks at WordPerfect didn’t feel the need to hurry in porting themselves to the new platform. They had achieved lock-in after all, and why support Microsoft. In less than a year, they were toast.

When the game machine platform of choice switches from Sony to xBox to Nintendo, etc., the list of bestelling games change and new companies become dominant. When the platform for music shifted from record stores to iTunes, the power shifted too, and many labels were crushed.

Again and again the same rules apply. In fact, they always do. When the platform changes, the deck gets shuffled. …  Insiders become outsiders and new opportunities abound.

This is happening, right now, in the legal services marketplace. The platform for legal service delivery is changing, and if you’re standing on it — and most lawyers are — you’re going to find it very difficult to keep your balance.  The platform used to be the traditional, top-down, hourly-billing, pyramidic law firm, where lawyers set the parameters for where, how, and at what price their services would be made available. Other potential platforms were either underfunded, impractical, or unauthorized. The legal profession as we know it today grew up secure and well-fed on this platform and has flourished as a result. Now, a platform shift is occurring.

We’ve already felt some tremors; now the full-scale quakes are arriving. Howrey LLP is preparing to cut 10% of its partnership after experiencing a 35% drop in equity partner profits. Clifford Chance has changed its governance structure allowing it to do the same thing. A major report from Hildebrandt and Citibank warned that more de-equitizations are coming this year because there’s nothing else left for firms to cut. Respected New York IP boutique Darby & Darby disappeared without warning (and, if you believe the accounts at Above The Law, it went out poorly). Corporate law departments are pulling work back in-house, spending less on outside counsel and turning to alternative fee arrangements. Law firms across the United States are cutting back radically on law student and new lawyer hiring (sample stat: median summer offers per firm dropped from 30 in 2008 to 8 in 2010). And looming over everything is the prospect, now little more than a year away in England & Wales, of full-scale non-lawyer equity ownership of law firms.

We can’t blame this on the recession anymore — what we’re seeing is more fundamental than that. The traditional platform for legal service delivery is giving way, overburdened by its own inefficiencies, inflexibility, and market-unfriendliness. In its place is emerging a new platform — the internet. And on that platform is springing up a multitude of new models by which clients can purchase the legal services they want, whether through virtual or distributed law firms with minimal overhead, advanced software for the completion of simple documents or the facilitation of basic transactions, process-savvy lawyers in other countries or quasi-lawyers in our own jurisdictions, and other platforms yet to emerge that we can’t currently envision. The common thread is client customization: the type, quality, and timeliness of service you want at the price you’re prepared to pay. Law firms will emerge and compete on these bases as well, but they’ll be far from the only game in town.

It’s a revolution, and like all revolutions, the benefits will lag behind the costs. It’s going to be messy and even ugly for awhile — platform shifts are neither neat nor bloodless. Think back to the hassles we all went through with Word-to-WordPerfect conversions while the two programs battled it out. Remember the upheaval in the auto industry as electricity began to shove oil off its fuel platform and the damage that caused to gigantic automakers saddled with suddenly unsellable gas-guzzlers. Think of the carnage in the record and newspaper industries as the internet took away their platforms and rewrote the rules of their games. It may take longer, it may not be as brutal, and it may not generate as much attention in the wider world, but the legal services marketplace is starting to go through something very similar. And there will be casualties.

It’s ironic that Seth chose WordPerfect for his lead example — the legal profession was one of the very last professional groups to abandon WP for the now-ubiquitous Word. Many lawyers to this day insist that WordPerfect was the better program, but when the platform changed for good, even lawyers eventually had to switch. The parallels are close enough to be striking and extremely uncomfortable.

When the platform changes, outsiders replace insiders and opportunities abound. Get ready.

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3 Responses to “The platform is changing”

  1. D Bayer

    I’m not, and have never been, big law so this is speculation, but is this really a sign of the “platform changing” as it relates to the pricing of legal services or evidence that producing partners are not going to put up with non-producing partners. It seems to me an acknowledgement that big law firms began to be run like giant corporations, with lock-step promotion policies (i.e. weeding out a class over a period of time to make “x” partners a year) as opposed to running the business like a partnership, where the partners (owners) interests are aligned. My two cents…

  2. Richard Granat

    Jordan is right on target with this blog. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for a tipping point to occur before we have wide spread change. I am been observing the impact of the Internet on law practice, at least since 1998 and are just now finding interest among lawyers interested in figuring out how to deliver legal services online. We started the ABA/eLawyering Task Force in 2000, and it is only just recently that interest in eLawyering has turned up. Our new free legal forms consumer portal with a Law Firm Directory of “virtual law firms” delivering “unbundled legal services” online at http://www.mylawyer.com is an example of whats coming.

  3. Donna Seyle

    Thanks, Jordan, for conceptualizing in such a concrete way the dynamics of today’s legal profession. There are so many shifting elements in law practice, including IT, billing models, etc., it is really hard to get hold of it all. While the recession may have spurred its inception in some ways, the shift has taken on a life of its own, and there’s really no stopping it. The specifics of change may be different for big law than for solo/small law, but it is being felt, and needs to be dealt with, on all levels.

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